Year-long conflict in Ukraine exacerbates global food crisis

Across much of Ukraine's most fertile land, what were once prolific crop fields have now become ruins in the wake of heavy fighting and shelling during the year-long conflict between Russia and Ukraine. The heavy toll on the country's agricultural sector is emblematic of a global food crisis that has taken shape since February last year.

Ukraine, a major food producer, accounts for 10 percent of the world's wheat market, 15 percent of the corn market and 13 percent of the barley market, according to the European Commission. With its grain production cut and export curtailed, the world has been feeling the shocks of food shortages that experts have been warning of since the outset of the conflict.

In the southern region of Kherson, which is home to some of Ukraine's most productive wheat-growing areas, Russian forces still control a large swathe of the territories and farmers find their crops either destroyed or have limited access to the province's 2 million hectares of agricultural land.

In the eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, where fighting has been most concentrated in recent months, the land that typically yields a significant portion of grain has also been harshly affected.

The ongoing instability and insecurity throughout Ukraine have made it difficult for farmers to access the land, water, and other resources they need to grow crops. Such impacts are estimated to reduce winter wheat area plantings by 40 percent in the country, according to the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

Still, the decline in Ukraine's grain production has not been as severe as many expected. In 2022, farmers in the country were estimated to have harvested 24.1 million tonnes of wheat, nearly 6 million tonnes lower than the previous year's record harvest but close to the five-year average of 25.3 million tonnes, according to satellite-based analysis by the NASA Harvest Program. Though with the loss of access to land controlled by Russian forces, Ukraine said its grain harvest in 2022 was slashed by about 35 million tonnes from the previous year.

The country's agricultural setback is also believed to have a limited impact on the world's output. In a forecast released earlier this month, the FAO estimated the global wheat production in 2022 at a record 794 million tonnes.

Nonetheless, growing pains have been felt across the developing world as countries most reliant on Ukraine's food exports, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa and Asia, have been receiving much reduced shipments from Ukrainian ports. On top of that, a drop in fertilizer and food exports from Ukraine and Russia, both top suppliers, have interrupted inventory and led to price hikes in the global food market. The FAO reported the highest annual index on food prices in 2022 since it introduced such measurements 17 years ago.

"You're looking at price increases of everything from 60 percent in the U.S. to 1900 percent in Sudan," Sara Menker, the chief executive of Gro Intelligence, a platform for climate and agriculture data that tracks food prices, told the New York Times.

Coupled with extreme weather events and disrupted supply chains due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the effects of the Ukraine conflict have spilled into the poorest regions where limited access to food threatens people's lives and livelihoods. The number of people now facing acute food insecurity have soared to 349 million from 287 million in 2021, according to the World Food Program.

The world is hungrier than ever, but recent developments may have offered a glimmer of hope. With a deal reached in July allowing exports from three Ukrainian ports and the conflict now largely restricted to some parts of eastern Ukraine, the FAO's food price index fell for the tenth consecutive month in January. As of that month, over 18 million tonnes of grain and other foodstuff have been exported via the Black Sea Grain Initiative, according to the country's agriculture ministry.

Uncertainties still remain, as seven of the 13 ports used by Ukraine are still blocked and Russia insists the extension of the Black Sea grain deal is contingent on the removal of some Western sanctions. With the conflict seeing no end in sight, the global food crisis is nowhere near finished. In early February, leaders of international organizations called for further urgent action to prevent what UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has described could be a "catastrophe."

"The scale, timing and potential ramifications global economies are witnessing suggest that" the Ukraine conflict will ravage global food markets if it continues unabated, a group of researchers from the International Food Policy Research Institute wrote in a paper.

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